Orlev: Arab MKs back Hamas, should be kicked out of Knesset
By Mazal Mualem, Jack Khoury, Gideon Alon and Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondents
Right-wing lawmaker Zevulun Orlev on Thursday accused Israeli Arab Knesset members of supporting Hamas in its activities against Israel and the military, Army Radio reported.
According to the report, the National Union-National Religious Party MK called for his Arab colleagues to be deprived of their seats in parliament.
Israel has expanded its military operation against the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority by embarking on mass arrests of senior Hamas officials before dawn Thursday.
Meawhile, MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al) on Thursday called the mass arrests of Palestinian lawmakers a "macho display by Israeli government," the radio said.
Olmert updates Netanyahu
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Wednesday evening with the leader of the opposition, Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, to provide him with a review of the security situation and ongoing and planned Israel Defense Forces operations.
During their 40 minute meeting, Netanyahu told Olmert he had the full backing of the Likud for all operations undertaken by the government against Palestinian terror.
Eitam: We back military action
The right-wing parties expressed satisfaction Wednesday at the Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip, while lawmakers from the left of the political spectrum leveled criticism for the incursion.
MK Effi Eitam (National Union-National Religious Party) expressed the hope that what he called the government's period of hesitation and empty threats had come to an end, and that a new era of effective military action had begun.
"We, as the opposition, will give the prime minister full backing, should he continue along this path of military response, and prove to the terrorist organizations that whoever harms Israeli citizens and soldiers will pay the price," he said.
MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) also offered his blessings to the government over the military operation. Steinitz, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and defense Committee, commended the decision to put military pressure on the Palestinians in order to expedite the resolution of the crisis and bring the abducted IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, safely home.
But Steinitz warned that Wednesday's military activity in Gaza does not negate the need for a full scale military operation along the lines of "Defense Shield" in 2003, which would be designed to destroy the infrastructure supporting terror organizations and the Qassam rocket industry.
On the left, however, the Hadash party submitted a no-confidence motion on the basis of "IDF's invasion into the Gaza Strip, and the attack on institutions, facilities and citizens."
MK Dov Hanin (Hadash) called upon the government to immediately halt the operation, saying that, "the blind return to the mud of Gaza is another step in the wrong direction.
"The responsible way to ensure Gilad Shalit's safety and expedient release is to take advantage of the signing of the prisoners' document, to declare a cease-fire and begin negotiations immediately."
Hanin was referring to the announcement Tuesday that Hamas and Fatah had reached agreement on a document drawn up by Palestinians jailed in Israel, which calls for a two-state solution to the conflict.
Hadash sources say that the invasion of Gaza may exacerbate the crisis and widen the circle of violence.
"The rescue of the abducted soldier in not a top priority for Israel," said Hadash chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh. "What is perceived as concern for his well being is actually capable of turning into another 'Operation Peace for Galilee' and complicating the situation, the same way it did in Lebanon."
MK Taleb A-Sana (Ra'am-Ta'al) dismissed the Gaza operation as an "adventure" and said that it would spark a serious escalation in hostilities. He said that the action would endanger the lives of innocent people, as well as jeopardizing the life of Gilad Shalit.
Tibi said "Israel is drowning in the concept that 'that which will not succumb to force, will succumb to more force.' Israel is drowning Gaza and its population, and jeopardizing the life of the abducted soldier."
Tibi predicted that many Israeli and Palestinian civilians would pay with their lives for this military "adventure."
Shalit's father hopes IDF raid won't yield more casualties
Noam Shalit, the father of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Corporal Gilad Shavit, said Wednesday that his family believes that the government decided to carry out a military incursion in the Gaza Strip after deep consideration.
"The emphasis here is on an intelligent, rather than impassioned, operation," Shalit said. "We would like no additional injuries, not among IDF troops and certainly not among innocent civilians on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian. This is of the utmost importance to us."
Hated and Feted
Azmi Bishara is one of just 13 Arab members in Israel's Knesset, and as such he has pledged loyalty to the state. But then he expressed support for the intifada, his parliamentary rights were rescinded and now he's on trial for sedition. Bishara's fate may determine what happens next for Israel's one million Arab citizens.
Saturday March 23, 2002
Israel's most prominent Arab citizen is spluttering into his cellphone in rapid-fire Hebrew, oblivious to his cooling coffee, the platter of pastry a waiter has brought, unbidden, to the table, and the sunshine of a glorious spring morning. A columnist for Israel's largest newspaper, the Yedioth Ahronoth tabloid, has chosen to write about him this morning, and it has clearly ruined Azmi Bishara's day. This is a man whose idea of pleasure is to while away an afternoon over newspapers on the terrace of a Paris cafe. "How can they do this?" he asks the caller, and launches a nonstop torrent down the phone line.
His tribulations have just begun. Bishara, 45, arguably enjoys the highest profile among the 13 Arab members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He is articulate and charismatic, and a persuasive speaker. Three years ago, he contested the prime ministerial election. Six years ago, when he entered politics, he was the darling of the left, which admired him as an intellectual. But now, following the country's collective lurch to the right after 18 months of a Palestinian uprising, he is on trial for sedition, accused of praising the Lebanese guerrillas of Hizbullah, and so encouraging acts of violence against the state. It is the first time that a member of the Knesset has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity and prosecuted for making a speech. He faces a year in jail.
For Israel's more than one million Arab citizens, remnants of a Palestinian nation that was driven out of Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, the trial is an assault on their aspirations for equality, a warning to their political leaders not to get ideas above their station. It is also a reminder of the precariousness of their situation as Jewish Israelis turn inwards and close ranks against the Palestinian uprising.
During the first days of the intifada, Arab citizens of Israel took to the streets, enraged by images of Israeli soldiers shooting stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers — who are, after all, their own people. Thirteen were shot dead by Israeli riot police in violent protests. A few days later, Jewish mobs were out in force. In Nazareth, they tried to set fire to Bishara's home — he was not there at the time — and in Jaffa, the Arab satellite of Tel Aviv, they stoned Arab businesses and a mosque. For the state's Jewish citizens, the protests, and images of Arab teenagers setting fire to cars on the roads of the Galilee, carried a different message. The question they carried away from the protests in October 2000 was: can we trust the Arabs living in our midst?
Eighteen months later, those wounds have yet to heal. Bishara — because of his recent notoriety inside Israel — no longer goes out very much. Neither do other Arabs, he says, for fear of being mistaken for a Palestinian suicide bomber. "It is very difficult these days for an Arab to sit in a cafe in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv," he says. "I don't go to movies here. I don't feel comfortable in public places — you hear about people being beaten in entrances to discos." This atmosphere of suspicion has bred the hostility that now surrounds Bishara, and the relative lack of sympathy for his legal predicament even among liberal Israelis.
Before he entered politics, Bishara was a professor of philosophy — an intellectual well-regarded by Israelis and abroad. The son of a middle-class Christian family from Nazareth — his father was a government worker and Communist party activist, and his mother a teacher — he grew up in a house full of the books of 19th-century philosophers. He came early to politics, helping to establish an Arab students' union when he was in his mid-teens. He remained active through his university years, before changing course to study philosophy at Humboldt University in what was then East Germany.
Bishara sees himself as a product of liberal, democratic ideas. In Berlin, his university friends were dissidents. His current bedside reading is a book by a former Italian Trotskyist, and he continues to enjoy strong ties with the Israeli left. He brought these liberal ideas to his Balad party — an acronym for National Democratic Alliance, which means homeland in Arabic — by promoting a vision of equality for Israel's Arab citizens that goes beyond ending the official discrimination the community has suffered for decades.
Instead, he advocates an overhaul of Israel, from a Jewish state to a state for its citizens. He supports the idea of a Palestinian state and the right for Israel to exist — he is in favour of a two-state solution, but insists that the Israeli state should be secular and democratic. "Nothing makes the Israeli culture more alarmed, more hysterical than liberal democratic ideas. If you are consistent with liberal democratic ideas, they get crazy, because questions like religion and the state, citizenship and a state for the citizens, touch a nerve," he says. "From day one, when I started with this project of redesigning the public discourse in Israel by saying the state should be of the citizens, not of the Jews, I think they felt alarmed. There is a Jewish majority, yes, but the democratic state is the state of the citizens. You can't connect it to a religion or to an ethnic affiliation."
Most Jewish Israelis agree with Bishara that Israel has, from its very beginnings, discriminated against its Arab citizens. The evidence is irrefutable: until 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel were subjected to military law. All but a tiny fraction of their lands were confiscated for Jewish towns, industry and agriculture. They were not allowed to form their own political parties until the 1980s, and made do with token representation in Israeli organisations. Until a supreme court decision two years ago, they could be legally barred from buying houses in Jewish towns.
Even today, when nearly one in five Israelis is an Arab, the Palestinian citizens of the state trail Jews in education, jobs and housing, and suffer higher unemployment and poverty rates. Their towns in the Galilee and in northern Israel are crowded, ramshackle and starved of cash. In the southern Negev desert, half of the Bedouin Arabs live without electricity or running water. Last month, the authorities poisoned 12 square kilometres of crops raised by Bedouins because they were planted on state lands. All of this is familiar to Jewish Israelis. Even so, Arabs remain practically invisible to their fellow citizens, because their paths simply do not cross.
Liberal Israelis have no quarrel with Bishara high-lighting decades of discrimination. But they balk at his contention that the Jewish state cannot be reformed. "He says that Israel cannot define itself as a Jewish state, and be a democracy," says Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israeli-Palestinian Centre for Information and Research, "and in this he is off the map with Israeli liberal thinking, which believes Israel can find a balance between being a Jewish state, and being a democratic state that can also guarantee democratic rights for non-Jews as well."
Israeli liberals fear that Bishara is leading his supporters towards a politics where co-existence between Jews and Arabs inside Israel will become impossible. They also argue that his vision of statehood endangers the very underpinnings of a two-state solution, one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians.
Even before the onset of the Palestinian uprising, there was a stream of opinion on the Israeli right that saw the Arab minority as a sleeping threat to Israel's existence. Such beliefs are born of cool demographics: the Arab birth rate is higher than that of the Jews, and studies have shown that, within 30 years, Arabs might account for 30% of Israel's population. Eventually, the right argues, the growth in numbers could undermine the Jewish character of Israel.
Such existential fears have magnified in the past 18 months. The failure of the hardline prime minister Ariel Sharon to bring the security he promised has weighed heavily on Israelis. They are traumatised by Palestinian suicide bombings inside their cities, and by the Palestinian guerrilla tactics that have inflicted growing casualties on one of Israel's most cherished institutions, its army. They are also deeply disturbed by the possibility that Arabs living inside Israel could lend active support to the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. Last September, an Arab man from a small town in the Galilee blew himself up outside a railway station, killing three Israelis. It was an isolated event, but it was not lost on the Israeli public.
Bishara is the first high-profile Arab casualty of this change in atmosphere. Officially, he is not on trial for his views on the nature of citizenship. He was indicted last August by Israel's attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, for comments he made about the Hizbullah, and about the Palestinian resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He faces separate proceedings for organising trips to Syria, family reunions between Arabs living inside Israel and relatives who fled in 1948. Many of the visitors had not seen their families for more than 50 years because Syria and Israel are technically at war.
"The political system wanted to criminalise the single person who symbolises the citizenship of Arabs," says his lawyer, Hassan Jabareen. "Azmi Bishara is the person who has succeeded in revealing the contradictions in the Zionist ideology, so the only option was to delegitimise him, and remove him as a player in the Israeli discourse."
The event that could lead to Bishara's undoing occurred in June last year, when he travelled to Syria to attend a memorial service for the late president, Hafez al-Assad. In his address, Bishara did not mention Hizbullah by name, but he praised the "heroic resistance" that led to Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon two years ago, and called for Arab states to support the Palestinians in their uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
But perhaps more incriminating than the language was the symbolism of the event. Assad was, until his dying day, an implacable foe of Israel, and Bishara shared the platform with the leader of the Hizbullah, Sheikh Hassan Nassrallah, and radical Palestinian leaders who reject Israel's right to exist. The impact of the speech was explosive.
"In any normal country, they would put him before a firing squad," said the far-right politician Michael Kleiner. "It's inconceivable that an Israeli Knesset member would encourage Arab states to launch a full-scale war against Israel." Days later, the Knesset began procedures to lift Bishara's parliamentary immunity, so he could be prosecuted.
Nearly a year after the event, Bishara is unrepentant. He sees no contradiction between serving in the Knesset and supporting armed struggle against Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. "What is loyalty?" he asks. "I should be loyal to the foreign policy of Israel, I should be loyal to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Is there anyone in opposition who is loyal to the foreign policy of the state?"
To Bishara's mind, his loyalty to the state ends with a commitment to uphold the laws of the land. "It was a historical deal. We got citizenship in order to stay on our land in 1948 after most of our people were driven out into exile. The people who stayed here did not immigrate here, this is our country. That is why you cannot deal with us on issues of loyalty. This state came here and was enforced on the ruins of my nation. I accepted citizenship to be able to live here, and I will not do anything, security-wise, against the state. I am not going to conspire against the state, but you cannot ask me every day if I am loyal to the state. Citizenship demands from me to be loyal to the law, but not to the values or ideologies of the state. It is enough to be loyal to the law."
Bishara's supporters claim that the legal proceedings against him are part of a wider campaign by the Israeli right. This campaign is not restricted to maintaining Jewish privilege inside Israel, but aimed as well at reducing the influence of Arab members in the Israeli parliament. In that case, Bishara is a prime target. His Balad party is emerging as a force among a younger generation of Arabs in Israel.
In the May 1999 election for prime minister, Bishara stood down as a candidate in the closing days of the campaign, under pressure from other Arab MKs, Palestinian figures and various Arab countries to avoid splitting the vote for Ehud Barak, the more moderate of the candidates, who duly won. In the February 2001 election, won by Sharon in a landslide, Bishara and other Arab MKs called for a boycott and 85% of Israeli Arabs did refrain from voting. A sign, said Bishara, that they had formed themselves into a block.
"I don't think you will find many Arabs who would disagree with the transformation of Israel," says Nadim Rouhana, director of the Arab Centre for Applied Social Research. "If you are asking about the acceptability of Israel as an ethnic state, it has become increasingly clear that Arabs don't support that — but they differ in how vocal they are about it."
Bishara's focus on changing the nature of the Israeli state set him apart from other Arab members of Israel's parliament, who have been preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues of discrimination in jobs and housing. But he also gained preeminence because of his persona. Among all of Israel's politicians — Jewish and Arab — Bishara stands out for his intellectual heft, as well as for his connections. During his academic years, he slipped easily between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds — a rarity for Arabs in the Jewish state who are uncommonly isolated from their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For a time, he worked simultaneously at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, a centre of Israeli liberal thought, and the Birzeit University, to the north of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Bishara's personal life also transcended the divide. He is married to a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, who is the director of the network of non-governmental organisations in the West Bank. The couple live in Beit Hanina, a well-to-do neighbourhood in Arab East Jerusalem, and have two small children.
The only place Bishara had trouble fitting in was the Knesset. The parliament is a brutally modern building. It sits on a high plaza in West Jerusalem, with fine views of the post-1948 Jewish half of the city and, on a clear day, the outlines of the Judean hills. Inside, it's casual. Politicians in shirtsleeves tip their heads up to the press gallery to joke with their favourite reporters. But the real heart of this enterprise is, in many ways, the cafeteria, where deals are made, and stories leaked. I ask Bishara who I might speak to in the Knesset about his trial, and he seems genuinely surprised. "I don't work closely with people in parliament. I never sat in the cafeteria. I don't like that place. It typically is not my style. It is not my aesthetic. It is not my life."
In the past two years, police have launched 11 investigations against Arab members of Knesset (MKs) accused of expressing support for the Palestinian uprising, or of insulting policemen. None resulted in an indictment — except for Bishara's case, but Mossawa, the advocacy group that compiled a report on the investigations, states: "The way Arab MKs are dealt with by the police and the judicial adviser reveals there are unofficial limitations on the extent of Arab MKs' freedom of speech." It adds: "Jewish MKs and public persons who made racist and inciting statements regarding Arab citizens have not been investigated, or had their freedom of speech limited."
A week after our meeting, the Knesset moved to circumscribe the activities of its members even further. It voted to bar members from visiting enemy countries — in effect, preventing Bishara from making a return visit to Syria. "They are mad, really mad. I can meet any Syrian, any Iraqi, anybody I want, but I can't visit their country. This is totally crazy."
At the same time, the Knesset has begun studying two proposed pieces of legislation, despite a warning from its legal adviser that they are racist. One of the proposals seeks to encourage a mass exodus of Arab citizens from Israel by paying people to give up their citizenship and residency rights, and emigrate to Arab countries. The second would re-zone lands for housing and other purposes from which non-Jews would be excluded. There are also proposals to require all members of Arab parties to sign a loyalty oath before being sworn into the Knesset.
Last month, Israel resorted to rarely used emergency laws to bar the Islamist leader Sheikh Raed Salah from leaving the country for six months on the grounds that his departure could compromise national security. A few days later, the judicial commission investigating the killings of the 13 Arab protesters by Israeli riot police issued notice to 14 witnesses, saying they could be indicted for their role in the events. Warnings were sent to the former prime minister, Ehud Barak, the former public security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, and police officials involved in the decision to fire live bullets on the protesters. But, to the outrage of Israel's Arab population, the judges also gave notice to Bishara and another member of the Knesset, Abdul Malik Dehamshe, that they could be charged with encouraging violence. Sheikh Raed was also given notice.
In Umm al-Fahim and other Arab towns, that decision was viewed as a great betrayal. For months they had followed the proceedings of the commission, trooping down from the Galilee to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. As the investigation ground on, a disturbing picture emerged. Police commanders and officers presented conflicting testimony on the decision to use sharpshooters against the protesters. Politicians accused the police of concealing information.
"We had hoped the commission would lead to the same feelings that we had had," says Ibrahim Siyam, whose son, Ahmed, aged 18, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet on the very first day of the protests in October 2000. "But instead of prosecuting those who killed our sons, they are looking at our leaders as if they are guilty, and that is not acceptable. Soon, they will reach the level of asking us as parents to pay for the bullets that killed our children."
Siyam counts himself a reasonable man. He earns a comfortable living as a building contractor for a kibbutz, and has many Jewish friends and business associates. Nor was his son a radical. A few days before his death, Ahmed had enrolled on a course in industrial management at a private college in Netanya. The death of his son has not broken Siyam's faith in Israel's political system, but the loss — and the decision of the commission — has severely strained it. "It is said that Israel is a democracy and that it belongs to us all. But we don't feel it. We are Israelis only in the sense of our ID cards. All the other rights and conditions are denied us. We don't get the schools, or other government services. We don't feel like genuine citizens."
That was the sense of grievance that Bishara tapped into when he launched his party. But because he did not stop at simply seeking to redress the traditional grievances of Arab citizens, but rather sought to challenge the founding ideology of the Jewish state itself, he also does not expect his struggles to end with the trial.
"I think that this trial is only the beginning of the offensive," he says. "We know, they know, everybody knows, that if I prove I am not guilty, this won't be the end. They will go to Knesset and make laws tailored against us. This country cannot sustain a democratic system and apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza; it has to import the apartheid. Even when they get rid of the West Bank and Gaza, they will come with the same mentality of the West Bank and Gaza to us here, imposing a kind of internal colonialism. And, I think, this will be the issue of the future."
Citizen Bishara, a film about Azmi Bishara, will be shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, the Ritzy Cinema, London SW2, today and on Tuesday, March 26. Call the box office (020-7733 2229) for further details.